Plaque and Tartar Prevention in Cats

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Jan Bellows, DVM, Dipl. AVDC, ABVP

How do plaque and tartar form, and what do they do?

Plaque is a gummy substance that forms on the teeth within a few hours after a meal. Within 24 hours, plaque begins to harden by combining with minerals like calcium that are present in the saliva. As the plaque continues to accumulate and mineralize, it eventually transforms into tartar. Tartar, also called calculus, is rough and porous and can develop above and below the gum line.

There are two ways that tartar harms the teeth and gums.

First, tartar forms a rough surface that serves as a place for bacteria to grow and multiply in the mouth. Bacteria can cause inflammation of the gums (gingivitis), which often results in painful bleeding.

Gingivitis often progresses to periodontal disease, which leads to further inflammation, pain, and tooth loss (see handout "Dental Disease in Cats" for further information). As tartar builds up along the gum line, it pushes the gums away from the roots of the teeth. As the gums recede, they expose the sensitive, enamel-free part of the tooth which causes sensitivity and pain.

"Gingivitis often progresses to periodontal disease, which leads to further inflammation, pain, and tooth loss."

Second, the bacteria on the tartar can be absorbed into the bloodstream and deposited in various organs, including the liver and the kidneys, causing infection and decreased organ function.

How can I prevent plaque and tartar formation on my cat's teeth?

After your cat's teeth have been professionally cleaned and polished by your veterinarian under general anesthesia, home dental care is needed to help reduce plaque and tartar buildup. You can decrease plaque accumulation by undertaking the following:

  • Feeding your cat a dental diet accepted by the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC), which slows plaque accumulation through mechanical or chemical means. By limiting plaque as it forms, tartar development is greatly reduced.
  • Wiping the outside of the teeth with a Q-tip at least twice daily. This is one of the most effective ways to remove plaque before it turns into tartar. Dip the Q-tip into tuna water for flavoring to help your cat accept this procedure.
  • Training your cat to allow you to brush their teeth. For more information on the subject, see the handout “Brushing your Cat’s Teeth”.
  • Using a VOHC-accepted water additive to reduce the bacterial count in the mouth, resulting in improved breath.
  • Having your veterinarian perform a dental cleaning under general anesthesia every 6-12 months at the first sign of tartar buildup. Regular dental cleaning is as important in cats as in people, and will go a long way to prevent irreversible damage to the gums and roots.

How do I know if the product I’m using to prevent tartar is actually working?

The Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) only accepts dental products that are safe and proven to reduce the accumulation of plaque and tartar based on strict scientific studies.

View the VOHC website for a list of accepted products:

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